Now that The Royal Academy has opened a multi-sensorial exhibit of this renowned South Africa artist, we excavated from the archives of Untitled Magazine a revealing interview from a few years back

How can an artist presume to depict the sufferings of others, on behalf of them? Is an eye-witness account or documentary image the only valid recording of a bloody event? This is what we ask when we consider the retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery of the work of William Kentridge, a South African artist who lives and works in Johannesburg.

In William Kentridge’s work, we see naturalistic drawings of bleeding bodies in landscapes. Kentridge addresses the history of apartheid in South Africa with three drawings filmed in the process of erasure and re-drawing. Seven films in the Drawings for Projection Series (1989-1998) chronicle the afflictions and avarice of Soho Eckstein, a mining magnate and Felix Teitlebaum his alter ego and romantic rival for Soho’s wife’s affection.

Nandi, a black woman, uses her instruments of surveillance of the Johannesburg landscape to reveal corpses; Ulisse: ECH0 scan slide bottle (1988) is based on Kentridge’s opera Ritorno d’Ulisse which includes a triptych of X-rays, cat and sonar scans of the body and journeys through Johannesburg with Greek ruins and decapitated heads in landscapes; Ubu Rells the Truth (1997) recalls Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that began its work in 1996.

Kentridge does not presume to re-enact the suffering of others but deals with it as an index of guilt.  The Apartheid Butcher Building shows Ubu Tyrant as pure unmotivated, arbitrary evil. These images succeed in demonstrating with currency what they’re negating.  They function as absent speech; the landscape obliterates and the real-life situation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gives this a clarity: ‘the idea that people should pay for their deeds, that they get taken down to hell. My experience is they don’t. They stay on their farms and they get their pensions.’ There is a hint of retribution in Kentridge who implicates himself in the Ubu posture.  There is regret and a sense of loss, a kind of love, a kind of tribute.


KM: Do you think that the Soho / Felix work has to do with amnesia in a melancholic sense, that it is an inability to overcome loss.  In Felix in Exile loss is prefigured in Nandi, who is a lost object of love?

WK: There is an element of regret and of…. loss.

KM: You don’t deal with it?

WK: There’s something in the physical activity, the hours taken in that transformation and activity of drawing which I think changes the nature of the image and changes people looking at it, not only for me doing it. For example, if you have a photograph of a dead person, the act of drawing transforms the same figure.

KM: Soho as civic benefactor offers Harry as a gift to the people. Why does he not act as an ideological manipulator?

WK: OK, that’s trying to get into a detailed psychology of Soho.  For me it was more about the contradiction of Soho as civic benefactor, appropriating this guy walking across a landscape. It’s as much about what it is to be an artist in South Africa where all the work is done through the use of other peoples’ misery as subject matter.  It wasn’t directly a self-portrait, but the problem was certainly raised.

KM: Why are the oppressed shown as a force without identifiable characters with revolutionary aspirations?

WK: This isn’t a film which shows the transformation of South African society or the black masses rising. This is the way the category ‘black masses rising’ exists within the head of Soho.  It is very much one of the things that make up who we are. I think that is why the woman characters are visions rather than agents.  For them to have been different would have been for me to have been a kind of novelist, which I don’t feel right about. They are very much a kind of meditation rather than a description.

KM: What about Weimar? You seem to be influenced by art from that period.  Art then was seen as an instrument of the struggle. How do you relate to that?

WK: The clarity that existed in political art then is now an impossibility. You would have had the communists moving into Germany at the time – there were already hints of a disaster that late Leninism or Stalinism was turning into. But it was still conceivable for a kind of optimism. In the late 20th-Century, the grand plans that were going to arrive, the idea that the working-class was the vanguard of the revolution, doesn’t make sense anymore.  So, there are hints of it and there’s a regret for that.

KM: What about the attempt at transcendence in your work? With Ulisse the viewer is absorbed in a mythic event, a suspension of disbelief. In Ubu, you move the camera; it’s your mechanical eye moving, as opposed to Ubu’s selective vision. Do you think you are more self-conscious in viewing the truth in Ubu?

WK: Ulisse was very much slower so I wasn’t thinking this feels more distant’ or «this feels more close’. There is a difference, no doubt, but that’s what you get at the end of the process rather than at the beginning.

KM: What about the body blasted out in space at the end of Ubu? The body gets reconstituted and breaks up into smaller bits in the sky, but this is Ubu’s stomach, Ubu’s infinite spiral is there. Is this a cynical transcendence?

WK: It is, but the odd thing is that the police term for that was ‘Buddha’ which referred to blowing someone up, gathering the pieces, blowing them up again, as if this was some misplaced idea that this was turning the person into spiritual dust. For me that oddness of the term was enough to justify the shattering of the hope that you could disperse someone so utterly that it would be dust. It still hovers above the present.

KM: The figure falls behind the surface of the building in Ubu. It’s as if it has to do with an archive of realistic moments, uncovered by you, as the guy with the camera.

WK: It’s taking those moments of clarity of archival image, saying, yes, this much we can be certain of, someone being carried and shot at Sharpeville, this we can be certain of, the police sprayed protestors in Cape Town in 1984.

KM: What is the eye of objective vision in Ubu?

WK: It’s partly Ubu himself and the police. They all had these home videos of necklacing and other things they did. They could be damned by this evidence, but they couldn’t stop themselves in keeping it or holding onto it.

KM: It was fetishistic?

WK: Fetishistic, yes. there’s a vanity in wanting to keep it. So the eye says it will see the truth but it lays itself open also, I think.

KM: The camera in Ulisse, – is it an embarrassed camera?

WK: Felix is naked and always seen from the back. In Ulisse the camera avoids sex. There is a comparison set up with another body not in the piece –Ulysses’s Body. The Greek body is an exposed body, so there’s an analogy with the temple on the mount and the body politic of persuasion. It is hairless and sexually exposed.  With the body filmed in this piece, the camera moves furtively over hairy skin.  We see a lot of other organs. This is an extra layer that constitutes a body of memory. It seemed to be an element that I needed in that crass sense – I needed that wiry hair that matches wiry drawing, that sense of switching from surfaces to images underneath.

KM: You could have set up satirical laughter or a defecating trickster versus western rationality’s presumption of progress.  Instead you have the unhappy conscience of the modern cynic. It’s as if after all those battles, there is a hankering for dignity.

WK: I think you’re right, but it’s a different project – a heroic project.

KM: Could you give the work a surrealist reading?

WK: You can in the sense that I’m interested in our relationship to the unconscious, the way in which part of us which is not directly conscious or articulate is very important. There’s some of those Magritte paintings of words, not ‘this is not a pipe’, but there’s one which has a black shape with holes in it, one of which says ‘you’ve got the horizon, the cry of the bird’.  That has a lot of sense for me – in the ways of apprehending and classifying and labelling; the unexpected taxonomies.   So I resist it less. I used to hate having anything to do with it.

KM: It’s a cheap shock?

WK: Yes, but it’s important to understanding more of the things behind surrealism. For the piece I am doing now, l’m going to take dream images of a week or two weeks to see what they add up to, but I’m finding it quite hard to reconstruct them.

KM: What about the surrealist use of Freud’s uncanny, with repressed images coming up in unfamiliar situations?  There’s a lot of visual puns in your work.

WK: It’s partly to do with the apprehension of…you know you get a surprise and it’s in your brain but you absolutely feel it in your guts; the sense that physical sensation relating to mental states aren’t just restricted to the brain. So in one sense it’s a literalism; parts of us are so strange and other to us. It’s like having a phone inside us, an inanimate object in us.

KM: What about the tea-drinking?

WK: It’s an easy domesticity. It’s quiet acquiescence versus fighting harder. It’s reassuring, kind of safe. It’s about not always wanting to be a victim to truth.

This interview first appeared in the Summer edition of Untitled Magazine in 1999. And details of The Royal Academy’s exhibition of William Kentridge can be found here.

Main image: De Como Não Fui Ministro D’Estado, 2012; image inside article: Enough of this Scandal, 2020